Friday, September 9, 2022

Calvin Colton

 America, as an experiment in democracy and religious liberty has grappled from its inception as to the degree that liberty, religious liberty, and slavery were connected. This discussion was particularly heightened around the topics of slavery and abolition in the early to mid-1800s. While abolitionists would argue that there was certainly connection between these three in favor of abolition, a contrasting body of argument was also constructed during this time. These were arguments against abolition, that slavery was natural, was protected by liberty, and as such, was expected and normal in the regular everyday state of affairs.[1] Not a few of the arguments came from those who claimed Protestantism as their religious practice.  

One such example can be found in the writing of Calvin Colton. It’s very likely you have never heard of Calvin Colton whom one author summarizes as “…an anglophobic, ex-evangelical Whig; an Episcopalian, millenarian conservative; a gradualist utopian deeply troubled by the market where he made his living…”[2] Colton managed to live in remarkable and historical times in ways that were markedly unremarkable. Colton came of age in a fraught period of time in American history, graduating Yale College in 1812 and from Andover Theological Seminary in 1814. Following his ordination in 1816, Colton would pastor for the next decade in western New York’s Burned-Over District, a region profoundly affected by Second Great Awakening. Following his wife’s Abbey Raymond’s unexpected death in 1826 as well as being troubled by a persistent throat infection, Colton left the pulpit and traveled for several years in frontier regions of the Midwest. He would then live in England  from 1831-1835 where he worked as a freelance writer and a part-time newspaper correspondent. He would return to the US in 1836 writing and teaching until the end of his life in 1850. Colton was also Henry Clay’s biographer and published his papers, though Colton’s biography of Clay was panned as “uncritical and unreliable.”[3]

In his 1839 book, Abolition, a Sedition Colton argues that “slavery…is a corporate part of the American political fabric, established by Constitution law, and interwoven with the frame of the Federal Government.” [4] Colton reprises the old argument that “it is better to be a slave in America than a free man in Africa…that the best conditions of African barbarism could never be envied by the worst of American slavery.” He further argues that slavery offers the opportunity to “…learn, that God, in his high and inscrutable provide, can bring good out of evil… by the lights of American civilization, and the blessing of American Christianity….”[5] These bear out two points. First that Colton is not terribly original in his thinking. The argument for slavery as beneficial dated at least from the 1700s as did the argument that removing slavery would disrupt society. Secondly, while Colton is correct that God can bring good out of evil, one should not blame God for evils perpetuated by mankind. However it is in the “lights of American civilization” that Colton also saw God’s role in American society.  In what would prove to be his last address in 1850 to Congress calling for a transcontinental railroad, Colton argues “God, in his providence, by the operation of the stupendous machinery of man’s collective power…has precipitated these great and startling events…”[6] “These great and startling events” referring to addition of states to the Union as well as the technological improvements that would allow for a transcontinental railroad to be built. Colton marks an argument throughout this

A prolific writer, Colton was neither an original thinker nor much of a stylist, but he was influential in his day.”[7] Colton’s writings stand in as prime examples of someone who embraced technological advancement and progress as signs of God’s favor on America. At the same Colton held, as many others did, that slavery was an essential piece of American life and could not be removed without doing significant damage to the fabric of America. Thus, Colton’s writings can be read as standing in for many other Americans at this time who argued for a “American Christianity” that promised technological advancement, commercial success and inevitable progress but was not meant to be extended to enslaved people.


[1] America’s robust religious print culture not only supported these discussions through a wide variety of printing presses and fairly high literacy rates but also provides a rich archive of primary source materials for historians to engage. On this see Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America edited by Charles L. Cohen and Paul S. Boyer.

[3] Cave, Alfred A. "Colton, Calvin (1789-1857), clergyman and author." American National Biography. 1 Feb. 2000

[4] Colton, Calvin. Abolition a sedition. G.W. Donohue, 1839. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926, 13.

[5] Colton, Calvin. Abolition. 97

[6] Colton, Calvin, United States. Congress, and Smithsonian Institution. A lecture on the railroad to the Pacific : delivered August 12, 1850, at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, at the request of numerous members of both Houses of Congress. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1850. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926, 5.

[7] Cave, Alfred A. "Colton, Calvin (1789-1857), clergyman and author." In his article, Bratt references Cave's entry on Colton as being one of the prime sources of biography on Colton. The most recent book-length treatment of Colton's life was published in 1969. 

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